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Florida’s Private Prisons Still Lack Meaningful Oversight

by David M. Reutter

Florida’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) has issued a report that finds that oversight of the state’s private prisons has strengthened under the Department of Management Services (DMS) but significant weakness still abounds.

The Florida Legislature authorized private prisons in 1989. When the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) had not contracted for any privatization by 1993, the Legislature established the Correctional Privatization Commission to realize the savings that are ballyhooed by privatization advocates. As PLN previously reported, the Commission’s first executive director was fined and fired for ethics violations and the second imprisoned for embezzlement of state funds.

That prompted the legislature to abolish the Commission and place responsibility for private prison contracting and oversight under the charge of DMS. Of the 19 states to have private prisons, only Florida places administrative responsibility for private prisons outside of its prison agency or a prison commission overseeing both public and private prison systems.

As of October 1, 2008, Florida’s six private prisons housed 7,725 of the state’s 99,048 prisoners at an approximate annual cost of $133 million. By Florida law, private prisons must save 7% of the cost of operating a comparable state prison while housing a representative cross-section of the state’s prison population. Due to the corruption of previous years, it is doubtful taxpayers ever realized this savings.

To strengthen its oversight, DMS created a 300 item evaluation checklist that established detailed contract monitoring requirements. Once implemented in October 2007, the oversight resulted in removal of three prison wardens and assessment of $3.4 million in deductions and fines.

Nonetheless, a critical weakness is that DMS has failed to address problems identified by FDOC’s reviews of security, contraband and health infirmary operations of private prisons. The security issues include inoperable alarms, spotlights and escape sensors. Tool control and checking for tunneling under buildings has also been a problem. The infirmary operations include lost or never executed laboratory tests, unsanitary conditions and nursing staff vacancies. Contraband issues involve drugs, gang material and weapons.

There is no adequate mechanism to resolve these problems. While FDOC issues its audit reports, it has no authority to compel the private prisons to comply. DMS has taken no action because its contract monitors are not “subject matter experts” in prisons.

The OPPAGA also found that private prisons are not serving prisoners with comparable medical and mental health conditions as those housed in public prisons. Only 16% of the prisoner population at five of the six private prisons are medical grade one or two.
Meanwhile, comparable state prisons have a medical grade one or two population that ranges from 29% to 53%. Similar results in population occur for psychological grade 3 prisoners. Prisoners in these categories require medication and other special services.

The result of these disparities undermines the requirement that private prisons operate at 7% lower cost than public prisons. The cause for this is locked in percentages created by the contracts, which were fine when they were signed, but fail to keep up with the state’s fluid prison population.

Another problem with the contracts negotiated by DMS is that they fail to hold the private prisons accountable for the effectiveness of prisoner education and rehabilitation programs. Although the contracts require that 10% to 30% of all prisoners must be enrolled in academic, vocational, behavioral and substance abuse programs, they lack performance standards of program quality and success.

The report also finds that prisoner families are not treated equitably in regard to telephone and visitation policies. While families of prisoners in public prisons pay $1.80 for a 15-minute collect call, those in private prisons pay on average $6.18 for that same call.

Private prisons also restrict visits to every other week or only on Saturday or Sunday.
Public prisons allow visits every week and visitors may come on both Saturday and Sunday. DMS says the reason is smaller visit areas in private prisons, but its data shows those prisons have twice the median square feet of those in public prisons.

Finally, the OPPAGA found that there are no established guidelines for the allowable uses of the approximate $1.5 million annual profits from prisoner canteens and telephone systems. Those monies are supposed to be used for prisoner benefit but have been used instead by the private prisons to purchase computers and software for administrative staff.

The OPPAGA’s December 2008 report makes recommendations for each area identified and the DMS said it will act on some. Specifically, it said it will take action to assure FDOC’s audit reports are acted upon within 45 days to resolve violations, it will train its staff in prison-related operation and management, private prisons will be accountable for performance of their programs, telephone rates will be set comparable to public prisons and guidelines will be set for use of welfare trust fund monies.

DMS said it would not hire managers and contract monitors with adult prison expertise, adjust the percentages of special needs prisoners at private prisons or change the visitation policy without conducting a survey to see if families wanted it and then it would occur only on a case-by-case basis.

OPPAGA report number 08-71 is available on PLN’s website or at

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